Recently, I’ve been obsessed with empty buildings. I don’t know what is wrong with me. I think it might be because I get entranced with the power of memory and nostalgia, two forces that take over a devoid space so easily. Something always replaces the echoing air, and the brewing dust. There is something about a piece of storefront, which is silenced like a tombstone, that makes me feel alone.
One of the stores I’ve been sitting outside of recently has been an abandoned Kmart just a few miles from my house. Kmart was always such an afterthought to the other big box retailers. The lights are still on inside it. They seem like a candle to some widow’s window on a seaside boardwalk. The plants have opened every crack in the blacktop over the parking lot. They look like little electric worms in some video game you would have played in the 80’s. The Kmart is right on a hill. It looks flat and bold, like at one point it owned the piece of the sky it sits beneath. Now, there is this vast emptiness to everything around it.
I’ve been to that Kmart a few times. I think, before, I bought a Mario Kart for the Wii there or it was a birthday present or something. I really can’t remember if it was that one or another Kmart. I just remember there was never anyone in there when I would visit it. It had the quiet, fluorescent ambiance of an under budget testing center at a community college.
I imagine all the thousands of people that showed up at the store over the years. I think about all the employees who worked there, who would constantly walk across the same pavement being spread apart by nature. The building is full of moldy spots, like it was an overripe tomato. Where are all the people now? Was this sterile cave more to them than just another big box retailer selling things sold at all the other stores? Did it let them get into their dream? Was it their purpose? Now, it looks like a dead spot in a tunnel of light.
Another empty store I’ve been sitting outside of has been an old Circuit City. It looks like a discarded shell from a long dead hermit crab. Circuit City used to be the big electronic competition to Best Buy. It was literally the exact opposite in scheme and color to its competitor. It was gray, red, and bland, like a version of Minesweeper from Windows 95. An empty Circuit City is undeniable in the strip mall landscape. Where the front doors were is a giant red cube angled oddly, like the crimson pillar was some sort of ghost the profit margins were echoing in its final days. When the great recession hit, the stores vanished in fall and winter of 2008. I remember it vividly, because an ex-girlfriend of mine was actually hired to work at it right before it folded.
Circuit City had a special place in my heart, because I actually went to one on a Black Friday to purchase a Nintendo DS Zelda Version. It was gold, like the Triforce, and limited in its creation. Back then, Black Friday was still a door busting venture that only occurred on the Friday after Thanksgiving. It wasn’t stretched out over a week to avoid casualties. It was one day. One maddening 24 hours.
This Black Friday, I guilt-tripped my father into going with me to Circuit City to purchase my Nintendo DS. We woke up around five in the morning, and drove to the retailer, which looked like this gleaming brown beam of capitalism in the murky twilight of early winter. The entire parking lot was full. Instead of parking across the street and walking, my dad and I moved a bunch of construction cones that were blocking a deep construction pit. We managed to sneak our car between the precipice and the parking spot. My dad almost tumbled down the man-made cavern, like some sort of child in a sack race at a school picnic. He gripped onto my car with the tips of his fingers and shuffled like a crab around the vehicle. It was embarrassing, but fun. We put the cones back before we left.
The abyss was not something to be trifled with.
Inside Circuit City, I waited a few hours to purchase my gaming system. It was painful. There were lines of people. They look diseased. They were ashen, flesh wrapped cyborgs with Starbucks cups mounted to their hands. Many had just stayed up all night to get there in time. This made them the most impatient quasi-humans on the face of the planet. I remember thinking Black Friday was this hallowed day. Instead, inside Circuit City, it was just a sweaty, odor-warped gray compartment of flickering light.
The best thing about Circuit City was the sterile fumes of tungsten and plastic burning against a copper relay of power cords. You could taste the technology they must have had in Bladerunner or Star Wars. It reeked undeniably human now. Circuit City looked like a bit of the future was opening up through the countless monitors and television screens, yet, on Black Friday it looked more like a scene out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, minus the slaughterhouse implements.
Now, it is all gone. It is nothing more than an online echo of a franchise writers muse about decades later.
There are more stores I could mention. They are fragments of a world where buying things constantly was the only way to escape all your problems. I flourished in that environment, but it left me feeling as empty as those shops which etch the concrete horizon like ghost teeth. Our land is covered with the empty skulls of dreams and possibilities. They’re dead memories, where if the light hits the storefront just right, they resurrect just for a few seconds. Where did the makers go? Where did the people go who made these places work?
I wonder if they’re happier now.